Synchro Boy by Shannon McFerran is a queer YA novel with a lot of potential, which sadly it does not fulfill. While tackling important and complex issues for contemporary queer teens – gender policing, homo/biphobia, being a queer athlete, and struggling to come out when adults already assume your queer sexuality – it lacks the scaffolding of both authentic developed characters and plot to uphold these themes.
Bart is a 16-year-old feminine bisexual/questioning teen boy who – seemingly on a whim – quits his school’s competitive swim racing team and joins the all-girl synchronized team. The novel attempts to cover a lot of ground: Bart’s journey from beginner “synchro boy” to a committed teammate training for the Olympics; the push-back he gets from the guys he used to race with, some of the synchro girls, their parents, and the institution of the sport itself; his blossoming romance with his duet partner Erika; his dad’s disapproval and withholding of financial support; his increasingly distant relationship with his mom; and his crush on a mysterious fellow swimmer he nicknames “dive boy.”
The problem is that the novel often develops these narrative threads at too slow a pace or too mild an intensity. Plot lines are dropped, unexpectedly tied up too neatly, or don’t achieve the necessary level of emotional resonance for what should be monumental events, such as Bart failing to get the scores he needs at his first competition or his lustful decision to make out with the one person he should steer clear of. Bart never fully emerges as a rounded person, nor do supporting characters such as Erika, Bart’s best friend Riley, or the other synchro swimmers.
Without much narrative tension or truly engaging characters it becomes hard to sustain interest in Synchro Boy. However, the author’s commitment to addressing intersecting issues related to gender, sexuality, and sports – particularly through the portrayal of a bisexual boy, which is still far too rare in YA fiction – is admirable and necessary. For some, these themes and representation will be enough to counteract the novel’s shortcomings. Just as Bart finds strength in watching other male synchro swimmers on YouTube – “it’s like they’re living a different kind of maleness” – so might readers find hope and inspiration in his fictional example.